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# He said it: “Possible” origin of life? Give us a break!

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It is important to remember that as far as science knows, the law of biogenesis, life only arises from life, is valid. Any statement that begins, “It’s possible that life originated from non-life by … ” is misstated from a probability point of view since non-zero probability has never been proved. (p. 38)

Donald E. Johnson, author of Probability’s Nature And Nature’s Probability – Lite (2009)

Alternatively: Pasteur was wrong. Spontaneous generation happens, so that “pasteurized” milk you buy isn’t safe.

Note: Dr. Johnson has agreed to send 10 copies of his book for future contests. Details to follow.

As I've stated elsewhere, Johnson's books are essentially quotes mined from other sources and it's left up to the reader to try to determine whether the quotes are relevant or even make the case which Johnson attempts to have them make by the context in which he places the quotes. Probabilitie's Nature and Nature's Probability is just that sort of book. The quote which appears in the OP can be found at the very end of Chapter 5 as follows:
It is important to remember that as far as science knows, the law of biogenesis, life only arises from life, is valid. Any statement that begins, “It’s possible that life originated from non-life by…” is misstated from a probability view since non-zero probability has never been proved, and as will be shown in the next chapter, is in fact impossible (zero probability). (p. 42)
Mung
Sorry for the follow up, but just so we can take a concrete action item away from the discussion: What would be a better way to home in on the fact that abiogenesis proponents are making a special pleading for an exception from the known law? We could, and often do, jump straight to the probability analysis, but I do think there is an important general point to be made first, namely: Why should we take abiogensis seriously in the first place when it is against the currently known biogenic law? Again, I think the probability analysis is extremely convincing and we could go straight there and win on the merits, but it seems we are leaving something on the table by implicitly acknowledging potential validity to the abiogensis theory by jumping straight to the probabilistic substance. Eric Anderson
I hear you and I think you make a good cautionary point. Personally, I probably wouldn't use the non-zero probability argument because I don't think it addresses the particular claim in question. Specifically, I don't think folks are claiming that life generally arises from non-life. Rather they are claiming that in an unusual circumstance, under conditions that may differ from what we currently see, against the odds, life somehow formed. In other words, they are claiming an exception to the normal biogenisis law we regularly see all around us. I don't see any way to address that claim properly without getting into the probability analysis (which ultimately Johnson implicitly acknowledges by doing it himself). But at the same time I wouldn't be opposed to someone homing in on the fact that abiogenesis proponents are claiming a special exception to the known law, which I think is what Johnson was trying to do with the non-zero statement. I don't think Johnson's approach is the best way to draw out the fact that an exception is being appealed to. I guess I'm not too exercised about it, but you're probably right that it gives opponents an easy opportunity to construct a strawman to knock down. Eric Anderson
Hi Eric, I think I wanted to make two points. 1. If Johnson understands probabilistic arguments, I think he does his readers a disservice bt framing it the way he did. Here's how someone might take that into alt.atheism (does that even exist anymore, lol?): "You haven't even shown that the origin of life has a non-zero probability. Therefore you cannot even claim that it's a possibility." As I read it, that is precisely what Johnson has stated. And I can just see some poor rube (HT Denyse) taking it and running with it. My advice, don't. 2. Look at all the quotes and links bornagain77 posted, including the one to the Johnson vid. They all seem to be calculating non-zero probabilities for the origin of life. Now take whatever calculation you wish from that list, including Johnson's own, and no matter how small that probability is, subtract it from 1, and what do you get? So on the one hand ID supporters want to be able to use probabilistic arguments against the "natural" origin of life, and on the other they want to argue that because a non-zero probability has not been proven one cannot say it's possible? To me that seems two-faced and illogical. As Ilion points out, you're better of giving them nothing. Mung
Mung, I think you have a fair point. Let me see if I can articulate it this way . . . I've seen the non-zero argument before, and although I don't think it is the strongest logical argument it does have some merit in the following practical sense: As far as we know, life only arises from other life, and, indeed, it has never been seen in all of our observations to come from non-life. As a result, we have no reason to take seriously any theory that contradicts that observed law until someone can show at least a reasonable basis for doing so. I think that is what people are driving at with the non-zero argument, and as far as it goes, it is a good starting point for considering how seriously to take any abiogenesis theory. However, and here I tend to agree with you, the only way someone can provide a reasonable basis for determining whether that law always holds is to delve into the details and provide some kind of probability analysis. Although not intellectually very satisfying, one could at least logically argue that although life doesn't generally arise from non-life, perhaps it could have as a rare occurrence and under different conditions than currently exist. If that is the argument being made (which it generally is), then I'm not sure the non-zero argument is applicable, so ultimately we have to get into real probability calculations to see whether or not the proposal is reasonable. Thus, I agree with you that an axiomatic statment about non-zero proof does not itself constitute a refuation of abiogenesis, and probably needs to be rephrased. Stated more generically, however, it has some practical merit as a starting point in evaluating a theory: how seriously should we take a theory that has never been demonstrated through all of history and which appears to contradict known biogenic principles? Yes, it could be that there is an exception to the biogenic law (in which case the non-zero argument would not be relevant), but it would be a very extraordinary circumstance and would require equally extraordinary evidence. Eric Anderson
It is important to remember that as far as science knows, the law of biogenesis, (biological) life (as we know it) only arises from (biological) life (as we know it), is valid.
If this is not true and cannot operate as a valid premise then his argument is meaningless. Humans have never generated artifical life either. Does that mean the probabliltiy question is irrelevant, for there is already life? His argument is that you cannot state that some event is possible unless you have first proven that the event has a non-zero probability. He claims that in order to assign a non-zero probabilty one has to demonstrate that it has happened before. That's just absurd and seems very circular. Not only that, but even if it can be argued that God is "alive" like biological life is "alive" God is still excluded by his own reasoning unless God is a "biological kind of life." The law of biogenesis, and all that. If I were to tell you that I was looking at a glass of water and I saw suddenly how ice formed in one part of the glass while in the other part the water became very hot, would you believe me? Why not? Is it impossible? Would you argue that as far as we know things like that never happen therefore we cannot assign a non-zero probability? "...since non-zero probability has never been proved." Things happen all the time without a prior proof that they had a non-zero probability prior to their occurrence. Mung
... to continue the thought, the probability for the origin of life (biology) *is* 0. But, if there if already at least one living entity (whether biological or non-biological), then that probability question is irrelevant, for there is already life. The question then is, 'Can there be new life?' Ilion
Mung: "Why doesn’t he just say that no probabilities can be assigned to the origin of life?" When one is asserting that 'life' (biology) "arises" accidentally from 'non-life', one is asserting that biology came from nowhere -- one is asserting that *something* can come from no-thing. When one is asserting that 'life' (biology) is created intentionally by an 'Intelligence', one is asserting that biology came from somehere -- one is asserting that the something in question came from a pre-existing something. Ilion
Eric Anderson-- Precisely! One does not, after all, calculate the odds of dealing himself a royal flush at the core of the sun. The odds for that are zero, for obvious reasons. All of the factors you cite lower the already astronomically low odds for the chance formation of integrated biological nanomachinery to something indistinguishable for zero. Matteo
bornagain77, thanks for the references. Lots of useful material in there I'll have to spend some time on. We need to keep in mind that the basic probability calculations for forming a functional protein, or the simplest self-replicating cell relate primarily to the odds of the particular protein/cell forming under ideal conditions. (I know some of the cites bornagain77 listed try to take into account those ideal conditions, but bear with me for a moment.) In other words, if I am calculating the odds of a particular protein forming I would typically look at the number of different amino acids (20) and the number of places needed for the particular protein (say, for example, 300 positions). That results in an incredibly unlikely scenario for the protein's formation. *However,* it also assumes that all the amino acids are available at the same time; that all are available at the same place; that all happen to be homochiral; that there is the right amount of energy available to catalyze the reaction but not so much as to disrupt the nascent formation; that there are no interfering cross-reactions; that the amino acid chain, once formed, somehow happens to fold into the correct functional shape, etc. Since it is generally difficult, if not impossible, to calculate the odds of all the *conditions* existing in the same time and place, it is often easiest to just assume them and then calculate the odds of the polymer forming (meaning, right parts and right sequence). The odds of it happening are so unlikely as to make any rational individual question the naturalistic scenario, but we mustn't forget to mention that we are assuming a whole host of additional conditions that make the scenario so much more unlikely. Eric Anderson
“It’s possible that life originated from non-life by … ” is misstated from a probability point of view since non-zero probability has never been proved. (p. 38)
"It's possible that life originated from intelligent design" is misstated from a probability point of view, since non-zero probability has never been proved. Why doesn't he just say that no probabilities can be assigned to the origin of life?
Dr. Don Johnson lays out some of the probabilities for life in this following video:
Oh. I guess that would put a huge dent in his argument. Help me out here. If it's not possible, how can it be probable, or even improbable. Mung
As Dr Johnson states in the book before you talk about probabilities you have to first determine feasibility. And there isn't any evidence of feasibility for blind, undirected chemical processes producing a living organism from non-living matter and energy. Joseph